Reading Jac Leirner in Conversation with Adele Nelson—the third and most recent volume of the series of conversations between artists and curators/scholars published by the Cisneros Foundation—brought back the sense of discovery of my first visit to the artist’s home and studio in São Paulo. It was as if entering one of her pieces. Both Leirner’s house and studio displayed an extraordinary elegance, with ordinary objects, stunning art, and mid-century furniture individually projecting their distinctive textures and hues and working in perfect harmony together.
Jac Leirner was one of Brazil’s first contemporary artists to rise to international prominence during the 1990s with her inclusion in exhibitions such as Documenta IX, in 1992, or Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1994. She is a shy person upon first encounter, but through this publication we are offered unique access to the different facets of her intriguing personality and works. Leirner speaks of her art as a commentary on art itself. Her sculptures, made of objects she has collected from daily life—including cigarette packs, banknotes, and plastic bags—might point to issues related to economics, the circulation of commodities, and power structures. However, she describes her practice as a reflection on materiality, space, and color—in short, on art’s multidimensional qualities. Her soft-spoken personality contrasts with her inclination to transgress, which, she recounts, was fueled by her immersion in punk-rock culture and the study of Dadaism. Punching holes in circulating banknotes (as she did in her 1986 series Os cem); stealing ashtrays from airplanes (for her 1992 series Corpus delicti); smoking her art materials (for Pulmão, 1987, for which she used cigarette packs); and exhibiting other people’s personal information (as in her 1997 series Foi um prazer, made with the business cards of museum professionals) are examples of the sly actions at the heart of all of her work.
Given Leirner’s background as the daughter of one of Brazil’s most important collectors of modern geometric abstraction, it is difficult not to interpret her minimalist aesthetic and obsession to amass objects in reference to her family’s collecting. Similarly, her choice to use ordinary materials culled from her everyday life during the age of globalization might misleadingly frame her work simply as a political or economical statement, not as a formal or conceptual exercise. Yet historian Adele Nelson’s knowledge of both the artist’s work and Brazilian art set the stage for the conversation to render her practice in more complex dimensions. She directs the exchange by weaving biographical allusions to Leirner’s life with important art historical references and insight on how the work of key artists, such as the Brazilian Cildo Meireles, or Eva Hesse, influenced her approach to materials and understanding of conceptual art.
As Nelson points out in this book, Leirner’s objects have the power to evoke canonical and unfolding contemporary-art histories; they reference and speak to both local and international sensibilities. Her work speaks of realities we share regardless of national borders. Nelson and Leirner’s conversation constitutes a historically informative and enjoyable read that documents the development of one of the most important contemporary artists to have emerged from Brazil in the second half of the 20th century.
—Ursula Davila-Villa is Associate Curator at the Blanton Museum of Art.